By Ridge Mahoney
Faced with a crucial regular-season game and the U.S. Open Cup final in a span of three days, the formerly freewheeling Revs will stick with what has been working recently.
In the past three games, they’ve conceded just one goal. A formation change to a diamond midfield, renewed commitment to defending for 90 minutes, and just plain hard work has plugged up a unit tied for the most goals conceded (47).
“We have been conceding too many goals so our game plan is to defend first and then we can break into the attack,” said midfielder Gerson Koffie after a 0-0 tie in San Jose last month. “It’s good that we got the clean sheet.” The Revs defended stoutly and nearly stole a victory when Kei Kamara's blast thudded against the goalpost.
The Revs have followed up that encouraging result with a tough 1-0 loss at Red Bull Arena and a crisp 2-0 defeat of Colorado prior to the FIFA international break. That rest will be sorely needed this week: they play New York City FC at home Saturday, head to Dallas for the Open Cup showdown on Tuesday, then travel to Montreal for another crucial Eastern Conference match Sept. 17.
A Concacaf Champions League place is on the line in the Open Cup final and the Revs are four points out of the playoff zone with just six games to play. Yet in his five seasons in charge, the head coach has reversed bleak runs with many of the same players and is determined to do so again.
“The focus is 100 percent on New York,” Jay Heaps this week told revolutionsoccer.net. “As a staff, we’ve done our film and preparation work for the next week, but in terms of the mindset and what we want our guys focused on, they’ll have plenty of time after the game Saturday to prepare and be ready.”
Injuries and suspensions have required Heaps to use different lineups in the 4-4-2 scheme. Attacker Kelyn Rowe played right back in San Jose in place of London Woodberry, with Andrew Farrell sliding inside to pair with Je-Vaughn Watson at centerback filling in for Jose Goncalves.
“We tinkered with the lineup, a little different formation, it was the diamond,” said Heaps. “We wanted to overload the midfield and we wanted Gersh to be the one that was protecting the back four, the centerbacks really. I thought tonight he was really good. He was physical, he was strong, he’s got good feet, so we were excited with what we saw there.”
Rowe, who had filled in at right back earlier in the season against Chicago, returned to the attack against the Red Bulls. With Goncalves back in the lineup, Farrell moved to right back. Rowe has played 151 games for the Revs since being taken as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 SuperDraft. He’s ridden out rough times before, including a bleak streak of eight straight losses in the 2014 season that ended with a loss to the Galaxy in the MLS Cup final.
“In past years we’ve gotten out of it easier,” said Rowe in San Jose. “This time it’s harder. It’s not a big deal. It’s one of those where when we do get out of the rut, we’re off running. That’s been the team’s M.O. Once we get off those losing streaks, we get on those winning streaks and score 10 goals in two or three games.
“We know what it takes to get to the playoffs. We know what it takes to be a good team.”
Conference leader NYCFC is the other MLS team that has conceded 47 goals but given the Revs’ renewed defensive mantra and the firepower of David Villa, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Jack Harrison, et al, plus a cup final looming three days later, the home team might be the more cautious one on Saturday.
If attitude has anything to do with success, the Revs are well-stocked. In the locker room after the San Jose game, Koffie, Kamara and a few teammates belted out a few lines from “New York, New York,” in anticipation of the trip to Red Bull Arena.
On Saturday, the same song can be applied to a different team as they prepare for a grueling eight-day stretch that will probably define their season.
“It’s just mind over matter,” said Koffie. “We have to rest and be ready for the next game. This team knows what it has to do.”